Rock City: Local Environmental Reserve Awaits University’s Purchasing Decision
As he wanders between clusters of boulders on Fayetteville’s Mt. Kessler, nicknamed “Rock City,” Frank Sharp reminisces. Looking south, the expansiveness of the Ozark Mountains unfurls behind him.
“I used to play here when I was a kid,” Sharp said, “and then my kids, and now my grandkids.”
The pristine view that Sharp and his family have known may be in jeopardy, however. During northwest Arkansas’s economic boom of the mid-2000s, housing developers purchased large tracts of land surrounding the area. Luckily for Sharp, the developer went bust when the housing bubble burst after the financial crisis in 2007. The area, deemed the Mt. Kessler Preserve, is a patchwork of private land, university and city holdings, and repossessed, bank-owned areas. Now, Sharp and a coalition of conservationists, outdoors enthusiasts and concerned residents find themselves engaged in a struggle to protect this part of Arkansas’ natural beauty. As housing and land prices creep back up, Sharp believes the time for action is now.
Located five minutes away from campus on Smoke House Trail off of Highway 62, a network of hiking and biking trails wind through some of the privately owned property. Built and maintained by Ozark Off-road Cyclists, the 8 miles of trails are open to the public after registration with Mt. Kessler Greenways, an advocacy group created in 2004. For those looking for more information, the group has a website at mtkesslergreenways.com.
The namesake Phillip Kessler, a German immigrant, arrived in Fayetteville in 1866 with his wife, Kate. The Kessler family purchased a small plot of land atop the mountain and opened a winery and brandy distillery. Although the winery and house are long gone, Phillip Kessler is still buried in a small cemetery on the south side of the mountain, according to research collected by Mt. Kessler Greenways. Old rock houses, decades removed from the subdivisions and strip malls that dominate northwest Arkansas, still line the road leading up to the trailhead. In the yard adjacent to Frank Sharp’s house, goats greet the growing number of hikers and bikers.
South of Smoke House Trail, the city is planning a new sports complex for a portion of the reserve off of Cato Springs Road. Chambers Bank, who acquired the repossessed land, has donated 200 acres to the city for the project. The UA is also looking at expanding its intramural fields near the city’s park. It’s the remaining Chambers Bank property that has Mt. Kessler’s advocates worried.
Mt. Kessler Greenways is proposing that the UA purchase the remaining 387 acres to serve as an outdoor laboratory. The purpose of an outdoor lab site is fourfold, according to Sharp. The lab can serve as an outdoor classroom for both UA students and local K-12 students. With the closing of Huntsville’s Ozark Natural Science Center, Sharp said Mt. Kessler can fill the need for environmental education in the area. An outdoor lab also provides space for outdoor recreation, much like the current system of trails on private property.
Watershed protection is another pillar of the proposal. Encompassing portions of both the White and Illinois watersheds, the property is a small part of the growing battle over water pollution in the area. The fourth tenant of the proposal is that protecting the area preserves a portion of Fayetteville’s natural resources. Sharp hopes the UA will recognize the ecological and educational value in acquiring the property.
To lobby their point, Mt. Kessler Greenways is collecting correspondence sent to UA Chancellor G. David Gearhart in a neatly packaged report. Sharp has collected letters from a diverse group, including the Department of the Interior, the National Parks Service, the chair of the Biological Sciences department on campus and several students who want to see Mt. Kessler protected. The Ozark Off-road Cyclists even organized a “Save Mt. Kessler” ride that departed from Chancellor Gearhart’s residence. Sharp said over 80 people participated in the group ride.
Sharp said the advocacy group has pledged to assist the UA in purchasing the property and has secured donations from several individual donors and foundations. At the trailhead, the group set up a trail login sheet. He asks that those affiliated with the UA, either as students, faculty or alumni, mark down their relation. He hopes to see roughly one-third of all users come from the UA community. In only the first six weeks of 2013, amidst the dreary weather, over 100 people have used the trails.
With broad support for the project, Sharp hopes it is only a matter of time before the UA acts. Sharp, who ran the former Ozark Mountain Smokehouse on Dickson Street, seems confident Mt. Kessler will be saved. As for the property itself, it sits unchanged, waiting on a decision.